Multigenerational travel: Remembering the trip of a lifetime to Italy

Luisa Bernebei Gowen, from left, her daughter Christine, father-in-law George Gowen, daughter Samantha Gowen and mother-in-law Sue Gowen enjoy afternoon snacks at Piazza San Marcos (St. Mark’s Square) in Venice, Italy, circa 1980. (Photo courtesy Gowen family/TNS)

Luisa Bernebei Gowen, from left, her daughter Christine, father-in-law George Gowen, daughter Samantha Gowen and mother-in-law Sue Gowen enjoy afternoon snacks at Piazza San Marcos (St. Mark’s Square) in Venice, Italy, circa 1980. (Photo courtesy Gowen family/TNS)

It was a hot summer morning in Rome. Our family of six was tucked into a semi-private compartment on a high-speed train, waiting to depart for Bologna.

The minutes ticked by and the compartment seemed to shrink around us. My restless mother decided coffee and pastry were necessary, so she gathered up my grandmother Sue and sister Christine for a food run — off the train.

Not long after they left, our train started moving, jerking quickly in its tracks in Termini, a massive railway station of sweeping concrete roofs and glass walls. My dad and his father, George, both career Navy men, looked worried.

Mom had our passports. Mom had the train tickets and the money. Mom was the only one who spoke Italian.

Quickly, my grandfather and dad started shoving suitcases out the narrow windows. They were ready to bolt from the slow-moving train. I looked out the window and saw my mother, clutching cups of coffee in her hands, running down the platform. My grandmother, a petite woman with a bad heart, was distraught and trying to keep up. Christine, age 8, wailed at her side.

“CHAAAAARLIE!” Mom hollered.

The train picked up speed and pulled out of the station. Two suitcases sat on the platform. Our two-week summer vacation through northern Italy, circa 1980, was about to get interesting. Or so we thought.

Thankfully, the train was only turning around in order to hook up a new engine car. Crisis averted.

Together again in the compartment, we laughed, a tad embarrassed, and drank tepid cappuccino.

Our big family vacation was a bucket-list item for my paternal grandparents. They had lived in Asheville, N.C., for years, not traveling much after a life at the whim of the Navy took them all over the world.



Before we journey farther, a diversion first on traveling with grandparents.

My American grandparents were generally old school. Grandmother was raised near Philadelphia in a time when women wore dresses, gloves, hats and sheers.

She taught us to never put our elbows on the dinner table. Never knock your shoes and scrape the heels. Always answer with “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir.”

On our trip through Italy, we dressed well, never talked back and tipped our soup bowls forward.

My sister would escape all the rules by disappearing to the bathrooms, where she would explore the sinks, the woodwork, the paper dispensers. I was often sent out to haul her back to the small talk at the table.

Mostly I remember watching my grandparents nod and smile, a lot. They knew only two words in Italian: grazie and prego. It was enough.

My father, Charles Gowen, a lieutenant commander, was stationed in Naples, Italy, on a NATO detail. His parents were taking advantage of their daughter-in-law’s connection to her homeland. My mom, Luisa Bernebei, was born and raised in Italy, a ninth-generation Roman. She had ventured to the U.S. in high school; met Dad in Charleston, S.C.; and married him after college.

Our vacation, with three generations of Gowens — who had never traveled together as such — would include stops in Imola, Venice and Florence with a grand finale in Mom’s hometown, Rome. There would be many gaffes and laughs along the way.



In Italy, everyone is “famiglia,” which is why the mamas and the nonnas are always offering more pasta and squeezing your cheeks when you smile and plow in.

Part of my extended Italian clan includes the Bacchilega family.

Back in the 1960s, my maternal grandmother, Vincenza, befriended a newlywed couple honeymooning in Rome. The couple, Mario and Romana Bacchilega, were visiting from Imola, a small town near Bologna. They were stranded after a hotel reservation fell through. My grandparents put up the strangers for two weeks, and a lifelong friendship was born.

Nearly 40 years later, our American-Italian family was heading for their quaint village in Italy’s Romagna region.

Mario and Romana owned a bar and pasticceria (pastry shop) in Piazza Matteotti, Imola’s historic downtown square. I was 11 and recall a long wooden bar, the smell and gurgle of freshly pulled espresso, and an endless row of pastries and layer cakes.

Older men queued at the bar for their morning caffe. Women sat at tables by the windows, market bags at their feet, as they chatted and watched tourists ogle the square’s architecture. A high-pitched whine punctuated lively Italian conversations. Imola is home to a Formula 1 race track named after famous Italian carmakers. The Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari is roughly 50 miles from one of Ferrari’s manufacturing plants. Fans come from near and far to watch high-powered cars lay waste to 3 miles of smooth black asphalt. It adds a modern and exotic touch to a town founded in 82 B.C.

We stayed at a small bed-and-breakfast called the Albergo Campana, which closed years ago. The town is still home to more B&Bs than posh hotels. For $70 a night, visitors can stay in the heart of Imola and tour its old fortress, Sforza Castle; the Santerno river; and ancient alleys flanked by terra-cotta-colored homes.

During our trip, a carnival came to town. I rode high-flying swings in wide-legged white pants. My feathery bangs were ferocious, my eyeglasses a spectacle of the late-’70s style.

We ate lavishly at Mario and Romana’s house: plates of roasted meat and sausage, homemade pasta, fried cheese and pastries from the shop. My white pants got uncomfortably tight. My parents and grandparents drank a lot of wine and Sambuca.

Our family left Imola and the Bacchilegas with a bagful of pastries, Italian chocolates and ground espresso beans. That bag would grow and grow, a symbol of a trip highlighted by amazing food and gifts for the American visitors.

Next stop: Venezia (Venice).



I’ll never forget Venice because it’s where I got in trouble.

Venice, to an 11-year-old, was like a playground. The infinite alleys and bridges that connect the city’s 100 small islands became a wonderful labyrinth for two kids who needed to stretch their legs.

My sister and I ran, yelled a lot and occasionally got lost.

And after four days on the road with kids, my stern grandfather was done with our antics.

As I played in Piazza San Marco, my grandfather grabbed my arm, pulled me close and said firmly, “Samantha, you need to slow down; stop and look and remember. You might not ever be here again. This is special.”

Behind me loomed the arches of the Doge’s (Ducal) Palace. St. Mark’s Campanile towered overhead, offering a perch for pigeons that over time had learned to swoop down to tourists holding birdseed. The importance of where I was, what was all around me, didn’t register. At least not yet.

We toured the palace and stood silently in the achingly sad Bridge of Sighs, where inmates on their way to prison cells would stop for one last look at the beautiful city outside.

I ate ice-cold coconut on the Rialto Bridge as tourists gawked at trinkets and boats zipped under us on the Grand Canal.

The grownups splurged and hired a gondolier. He swept us along the narrow corridors of water, singing, telling us when to duck and generally working hard for his tip. My sister and I tried to touch the filthy water when nobody was watching.

I remember staring in fascination at the low-tide waterline etched on ancient buildings. Passengers exited boats for water-drenched entryways. Can you imagine missing a step on your way to school or work?

On our last day, we crossed from Venice proper to Murano island, where sweaty men blew air down metal tubes to form molten glass balls. My mother and grandmother bought theatrical masks, commonly seen at the annual Carnevale de Venezia. When my grandmother died years later, her masks joined my mother’s on our living room wall.

To keep things more affordable, my parents booked a B&B on mainland Venice, in a town called Mestre. We bunked with the grandparents. Sharing a room with our parents, then in their early 30s, was deemed “inappropriate” by Dad.

Every day, we rode a water taxi into Venice. “Don’t touch the water. It’s a giant toilet bowl!” my dad would holler.



When most people think of Italians, they think of pasta, gladiators and Michelangelo.

Florence is home to the Renaissance man’s most famous sculpted work.

Keep in mind, I was but a child, so a giant statue of a naked man was blush-inducing and fascinating. I remember the guard at David’s feet smiled at my open-mouth stare. The 17-foot marble man was a highlight I’ll never forget. Everything else in this city known for its historic artwork was just a blur.

My sister and I amused ourselves by running up and down the carpeted galleries of the Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia. The paintings were one big wash of naked people gesturing to something just off canvas, or holding chubby and equally naked babies, tubs of wine or each other.

The older generation tolerated our bad behavior as much as possible. Grandfather, forever a navy captain, would offer a stern “pay attention” when we got out of hand.

To keep us in check, the elders fed us gelato daily. The amazing Italian ice cream is a must-have treat during a summer in Italy, whose climate is very similar to Southern California’s. Smile nicely for the man behind the counter and he might just comp the crema, or whipped cream.

As I looked back at pictures of this trip, I’m reminded of how well we dressed. My mother and grandmother were often in dresses, the men in slacks and pressed linen jackets. It comes with the territory in Italy, where good fashion is second nature. Women walk for miles in fine Italian leather heels. Men, always dapper, are rarely without a jacket and often walk arm-in-arm with their children, young or grown. Many Americans stood out, sadly, for their acid-washed denim, short shorts and flip-flops, a no-no in many museums and churches.

We spent three days in Florence. By the time we bundled back into our train car, Grandpa’s bag of goodies was 4 feet tall. We were tired of each other, sniping and longing for our own beds. But we weren’t done yet. I was eager for what was next: my mother’s hometown.



Rome has always felt like a second skin, easily donned when walking the cobblestones or shed when stateside.

My mother’s family has been there longer than I can imagine. My great-great-great-grandfather was a guard at Vatican City. We shed him and his name after he stabbed his wife, my great-great-great-grandmother, 14 times. (She lived; he was drunk and his aim was poor.)

Mom was the only Bernebei to move to the U.S. Her side of our family remains in and around Rome. During my father’s tour in Naples, we’d visit the city often. Every day we sat outside the neighborhood cafe, Bondolfi, just across the street from Vatican City and watched our cousins walk by. Lots and lots of cousins.

My American grandparents reveled in this connectivity. My mother was like a rock star, home among her people. She was and still is quite proud of her ancient city, often saying, “Dig a hole anywhere and you’ll find another civilization buried below.”

On those hot summer days, we walked it all.

Piazza Navona, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, the massive Colosseum (I wanted to pet all of its resident cats). We threw coins in the Trevi fountain, ate piles of pasta and even more gelato. We whispered in the catacombs and walked reverently by the long-dead popes buried at St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Sistine Chapel was a mess of tourists gaping, heads tipped on shoulders. My eyes, never very good, struggled to see what all the fuss was about.

For me, the best parts were sitting at my Italian grandparents’ dinner table, watching my grandfather, Terzo, quickly peel skin from an apple while laughing at American soap operas translated into Italian. My Uncle Vittorio, my mom and her sister, Anna, argued about politics while my paternal grandparents and my dad nodded and pretended they understood what was being said.

Years later, when my family was back stateside, our summer trips shifted to Asheville, which was fun, but not nearly as exciting as gondola rides in Venice. My grandparents would recount our trip to Italy with affection, which made me wonder why the family didn’t travel together more often. (Maybe traveling with loud, sometimes cranky kids was a bit much for them.)

Going back 36 years has made me realize how time flies, and how precious it is. If I’m lucky, maybe history will repeat itself and this time it will be my parents touring an exotic, faraway place with their children and grandchildren in tow.



The trains of Le Frecce, formerly known as Eurostar Italia, travel to most of Italy’s big cities and offer a luxurious and fast ride. A trip between Venice and Rome takes three hours. The trains operate under three names: Frecciarossa (FR, for Frecce red), Frecciargento (FA, for Frecce silver) and Frecciabianco (FB, for Frecce white).

The trains are equipped with air conditioning, power sockets for electronic devices, a restaurant, bar, coffee bar and free Wi-Fi.

Reservations are required. More at

If you’re a big group, consider color coordinating clothing or even hats so family members can easily be spotted in a crowd. We typically saw professional tour leaders carrying a big, fake flower to help tourists find their group.

Ask waiters to expedite food for children to avoid temper tantrums brought on by hunger.

Feed the kids an afternoon treat (gelato) daily to coax (bribe) them through museum tours.

Negotiate. Not everyone will want to go on the 17th historic church tour. Agree to meet up for lunch and let the kids play in a park.